A Government Takes Ag Antibiotics Seriously — But Not Our Government

Matt Rourke/AP

It’s always fascinating to me to see how seriously other parts of the world take the issue of antibiotic use in agriculture, given the long struggle in the United States to get the Food and Drug Administration to act and to get legislation through Congress. The European Parliament has voted down any prophylactic antibiotic use, and China has banned growth promoters.

And last week, the UK Parliament examined the issue for the first time in more than a decade, in a long debate that featured some stinging language by members of Parliament and, it must be said, some inadequate responses by a government agency.

On Jan. 9, MP Zac Goldsmith (Conservative, from Richmond Park) laid out the case for examining agricultural use of antibiotics in the UK, supported by MPs Andrew Smith (Labour, from Oxford), Jim Shannon (DUP, from Strangford), Caroline Lucas (Green, from Brighton) and several others.

Some excerpts:


 …the antibiotics used in veterinary and human medicine are closely related, and a growing body of evidence indicates that, for some serious infections, the inappropriate use of antibiotics on farms leads to the development of resistance among farm animals that can and does pass to humans. Sir Liam Donaldson, former chief medical officer, starkly acknowledged that in his annual report three years ago in 2009, when he said of antibiotics: “Every inappropriate or unnecessary use in animals or agriculture is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient.”

The Government are right to insist on better infection control in hospitals and changes in the way that antibiotics are prescribed by doctors. However, …there has been virtually nothing from the Government that could in any way encourage vets and farmers to be similarly prudent. Not surprisingly, therefore, there has been little progress; on the contrary, analysis by the Soil Association of the Government’s statistics indicates that the overall use of antibiotics per animal on UK farms increased by 18% between 2000 and 2010, while the farm use of third and fourth-generation cephalosporins — drugs described by the Health Protection Agency as hospital workhorses — increased by over 500%.


Does (the hon. Gentleman) feel that the use by the farming sectors — whether pig, poultry or beef — of antibiotics is unnecessary, because there is a blanket use, rather than reacting to disease? Does he feel that that has a direct impact on us as human beings? Many people come to me and say that the antibiotics are not working, and they are getting three doses from the doctor. Is that feeding off what is happening?


…some antibiotics have already been lost to resistance: for example, penicillin for staphylococcal wound infections, ampicillin for infections of the urinary tract and ciprofloxacin for treating gonorrhoea. Many more are under threat, and new antibiotics are increasingly hard to find and license. We are now using our reserve antibiotics.

University of Cambridge researchers revealed the first cases in UK livestock of a new strain of the multi-resistant superbug MRSA. It is called ST398, and it has become endemic in European and north American pig populations and has spread to poultry and cattle. It is significant because, unlike most strains of staphylococcus aureus found in farm animals, it is readily able to transfer to humans.


In the light of the very real health risks and the strong words from a former chief medical officer, as the hon. Gentleman has said, about the unnecessary use of antibiotics being nothing less than “a death warrant for a future patient”, does he agree that we need a legally binding timetable for the phased ending of all routine, prophylactic, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals?


The Department of Health is currently developing its new cross-Government, five-year antimicrobial resistance strategy and action plan for 2013 to 2018, so I ask the (Health) Minister these questions today. Will she promise that it will give significant consideration to the use of antibiotics on farms and to the link between farm use and resistance? Will the Government work with the veterinary profession and the agricultural industry, as they have done in recent years with the medical profession? Does she agree that we need better data on antibiotic use, published by antibiotic family and by animal species, as is already done in France?

Furthermore, will the Minister lobby vigorously her colleagues at (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to take urgent action to restrict the prophylactic use of antibiotics, to limit the prescription and use of antimicrobials for the herd treatment of animals to cases in which a vet has assessed that there is a clear clinical justification and to limit the use of critically important antibiotics to cases in which no other type of antimicrobials will be effective? Will the Minister call on DEFRA to ban the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in poultry production to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, Campylobacter and other infections in humans?

In response, MP Anna Soubry (Conservative from Broxstowe), who was recently named Health Minister, said some things that were encouraging and others that were, well, not. Among them:

We agree that the routine use of antibiotics in animals is unacceptable. I am assured that relevant guidance and regulation is given to the sector to make that absolutely clear.

The Government fully appreciate that effective controls are needed in the environmental, agricultural, food production, animal and human health sectors. Failure to act promptly and comprehensively could mean that we face impending problems with implications for animal health and welfare and knock-on effects for food supply and safety, as well as, ultimately, human health and patient safety.

But also:

…the scientific consensus is that veterinary use of antibiotics is not a significant driver for human multiresistant infections. However, we are keen to see greater improvements in prescribing in all sectors and are actively working to encourage that.

After the debate, the Soil Association, which advocates for organic agriculture in the UK, said:

The Government is factually incorrect and morally irresponsible to claim the evidence is inconclusive and then use this as an excuse for inaction. There is an international scientific consensus that farm animals form a major reservoir of antibiotic resistance in food poisoning bacteria and there is now overwhelming evidence that they also contribute significantly to a number of other serious resistant infections in humans, particularly those caused by non-food poisoning forms of E. coli.

…the UK does not routinely monitor antibiotic resistance in E. coli, enterococci or Staphylococcus aureus on farm animals. There is a serious lack of democratic accountability in the Government’s approach to farm antibiotic-resistance issues and the threat these pose to human health.

The Houses of Parliament videos don’t embed well, sadly, but you can watch the debate here.




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